Negative Keywords in Search Advertising

Explore what negative keywords are, how to develop them for search advertising, and how to utilize them to improve advertising ROI.

Target keywords are familiar for those who’ve had some level of experience with search advertising or SEO. These are the terms for which we want our business to have a dominating presence when they are searched by a prospective customer. The more often we show for these terms and the better our respective placement (or “ranking”) within the list of returned results, the better our outcomes.

“Negative keywords” are often a more foreign concept though are nearly as important. Let’s explore what negative keywords are, how to develop a relevant list for your campaign(s), and how to utilize these to improve your return on advertising spend.

What are Negative Keywords?

Negative keywords are words or phrases for which you don’t want your ads to display. These are especially impactful if you are running a search ad for an open-ended phrase or topic.

For example, if you are a lawn care provider, you’d likely consider advertising for a phrase such as “lawn mowing” within your desired service area. Without more qualifiers, platforms such as Google could likely show your ads for “lawn mowing tips” or “how to start a lawn mowing business.” Both of these searches do technically contain the phrase lawn mowing, but any ad clicks from these types of queries would be irrelevant for your business and a waste of your campaign’s budget.

As platforms such as Google encourage more open-ended keyword types and frankly extend their matched searches beyond the designated scope of our target keywords to what they deem “close variants”, a thoughtful negative keyword strategy is vital for your advertising ROI.

How to Find Negative Keywords

There are several methods you can use to develop a negative keyword list. You can start with brainstorming common sense phrases that are adjacent yet irrelevant to your business. Terms like “free”, “what is”, and so on can be good places to start.

You can also simply search your targeted keywords as though you were a customer and browse the search results. What phrases are included in other webpages’ titles as well as sections like Google’s “people also searched?” If any terms don’t make sense for your ads’ scope, make note of them.

How to Use Negative Keywords

Once you have a list of negative keywords you’d like to add to a campaign, you’ll find a section within the respective ad platform near where you add targeted keywords. Negative keywords function similarly to these and have the same match types. You can negate your ads appearing for anything from an exact phrase (“exact match”) to any search that includes a specific word (“broad match.”) For example, a primary care doctor might use a broad match negative keyword of “surgeons” to avoid running ads for surgical-related searches and use a phrase match negative keyword of “without seeing a doctor” to not show waste funds advertising for diy-type searches along the lines of “treating back pain without seeing a doctor.”

Keep in mind, you can also draw negative keyword opportunities from your active campaigns’ matched searches of peoples’ real queries. Adding negative keywords on an ongoing basis prevents further ad displays for those irrelevant searches and can be a source of negative keyword ideas for any additional campaigns you or your team may launch in the future.


Negative keywords are an essential component of search advertising in order to maximize ROI on advertising spend and avoid having to respond to irrelevant calls/forms. A thoughtful list of these should be implemented before a campaign’s launch and evaluated on an ongoing basis.

Taylor Brown
Taylor Brown

Taylor is the owner & digital strategist of Go-To Man Marketing. With a passion for digital marketing and analytics, he's helped clients to grow their businesses for more than a decade.

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